NPR forgets about zoning.

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Last night's installment of the Summer Documentary Series on Michigan Radio was on "The Sprawling of America", produced by the Great Lakes Radio Consortium's The Environment Report. I was glad to see them focus on the topic, until they unquestioningly repeated the fallacy that density - revitalizing city centers and urban neighborhoods - is a violation of property rights. The popular idea that sprawl is the product of a free market, "What People Want", is probably the single biggest mistake preventing us from either effectively addressing sprawl or effectively revitalizing our cities.

Dear Michigan Radio and The Environment Report,

While I was excited to find that Tuesday night's Summer Documentary was on city planning and sprawl, I was disappointed to see you fall into one of the standard traps around the subject. Around 20 minutes into the show, you discuss the perceived "clash" between planners' and environmentalists' desire to reduce sprawl on the one hand and property rights and "the market" on the other hand. Assuming that sprawl is a product of a free market is not only false, but completely counterproductive.

Sprawl is not the result of the free market, but rather a product of heavy regulation and "social engineering". As you note elsewhere in the documentary, billions of dollars of subsidy are pumped into roads and other infrastructure to support farflung development, which hardly sounds like a "free market". Additionally, the federal government has long subsidized suburban homeowners: through Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Authority mortgages, and less directly through income tax deductions for mortgage interest, the government has spent the last half-century paying people to move out of the cities and into sprawl.

Finally, and most significantly, sprawl development is not only encouraged but forced by zoning ordinances. You quote Don Shoup on the fact that local ordinances almost always require developers to provide more parking than they would choose to provide in absence of regulation, but you fail to follow that line of thought. In addition to parking, zoning ordinances throughout America require minimum lot sizes and minimum setbacks from the lot line to buildings, ensuring that new development takes up more land, and strictly prevents multiple-family housing from being constructed in most areas. Government regulations force most Americans to live in detached houses on large lots in unwalkable areas, regardless of what they want - sprawl is not a product of the free market at work, but the result of 60 years of official belief that sprawling subdivisions are "healthier" and "more stable" than denser urban neighborhoods.

I recommend that you look into "Zoned Out", a recent book by Professor Jonathan Levine, the chair of the University of Michigan's Urban and Regional Planning program. Levine is one of the few planners or academics pointing out that sprawl is the product of regulation, and that reducing sprawl requires reducing regulation. Far from "forcing people into cities", we need to stop forcing them out of cities. By loosening zoning regulations to permit greater density, we can fight sprawl by allowing people more choices, more freedom to live in denser neighborhoods and downtowns.

I enjoy the Summer Documentary Series, but, trained as an urban planner, I can't help but cringe at the statement that we need to find a balance between "pursuing the good life in the 'burbs," and revitalizing city centers. For many Americans, there is no such conflict - the good life is in the city centers.

Richard Murphy
Ypsilanti, MI

Yes, part of it's probably just loyalty to my grad school adviser, but I do feel lucky to have studied under one of the few people who is making arguments in the language of choice, freedom, and property rights. They are arguments most people have never heard, and often effective at getting the attention of people who dismiss questions of environment or social equity out of hand.

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up your old advisor in preparation for a PhD run? Actually, that sounds like a good strategy.

Do old advisors exist for

Do old advisors exist for any other reason?

Good stuff

Thanks for expressing your views on the sprawl issue. For us non-planners, this is very illuminating. And thanks for the book recommedation. "Zoomed Out" is zooming its way to me via the Library.

Nancy Shore

Zoning for exclusion and sprawl

Nancy, this is a view that most planners don't even espouse - most planners advocate less sprawl and more dense development from positions that, say, it will prevent farmland or natural spaces from being developed, or that denser areas better support small entrepreneurs, or that denser neighborhoods reduce obesity by 2%. When you make those arguments, you then have to say, "this benefit that we're trying to achieve is worth more than the cost to achieve it". The planner has to prove that it's worthwhile, and this is where we run up against the property rights shouters.

Levine's framing is that this is backwards - we can achieve density and prevent sprawl (and realize all the benefits we think that has) just by undoing some of our exclusive regulations. In this framing, the burden of proof ("is this worth it?") falls on the regulations, not on the planner.

As an example, most zoning includes minimum floor area and minimum lot size requirements - "you must be able to afford at least this much house and this much yard to live here." From your work at SOS, I'm sure you can see how this would be a problem; people who can't afford the regulatory minimum amount of housing end up with no housing. We might say, "This is bad - we need to create more affordable housing units!" The response would be, "How much would that cost? Prove that the cost of creating housing is worth it!" The "Zoned Out" alternative is for the planners and housing advocates to ask, "Why is this regulation in place? Prove that we need to require that much house and that much yard!" It won't directly get that family into housing, but if it's found that the regulations can be backed down a bit, it might be easier in the future for that family to find and stay in a home.

I am not, mind you, saying we should erase all zoning - it has some very important uses. I'm just saying that you can take any zoning ordinance in the country, and ask, "Why is this provision there, and does it need to be there, and, if so, does it need to be there at such a level?" you'll quickly understand that our current situation is not in any way a free market.

Turning it around

I think one particularly effective part of the argument is that it turns the whole discussion on its head. Instead on concentrating on zoning as the locus from which all else begins, you instead turn around and question if the zoning makes sense in the first place. Nice.

Nancy Shore

The costs of living with Ypsilanti zoning ordinances

The "impression" many of us have who live in the downtown is that a combination of a poor economy, "downzoning," city property taxes, possibly an income tax, plus generally rising costs for water and utilities IS driving some/more of us out of the city. What steps is the city taking (planning, zoning, etc.) to make it reasonable to remain in downtown Ypsilanti?

This isn't a good forum for

This isn't a good forum for that level of discussion.

I'll note for curiosity's sake that Ypsilanti is significantly the densest part of Washtenaw County - 5,324 people per square mile in 2000, compared to 4,221 in A2 and Ypsi Twp at 1,546. (Washtenaw County as a whole is 446, but that's not at all a valid comparison.)

My census tract (which generally overlaps with the downzoning of last year that you mention) is by far the densest part of the county, in fact - upwards of 19,000 people per square mile. The second densest is the neighborhood we moved from in A2, south of UM's campus, at 15,000.

Then, what's next ...

What's next on the list for the City of Ypsilanti via zoning and other planning concepts, to help maintain/increase occupancy/density within the downtown and central city neighborhoods?

I don't think zoning is to blame

I don't think downzoning is neccessarily to blame, or at least not anywhere near the degree that a poor economy, taxes and rising utility costs are.

The poor economy is actually making it cheaper to live near downtown. Rents are going down so it's getting cheaper for those that rent. Home values are going down - good for buyers/potential buyers (like me!) yet bad for those looking to sell within the next year or two (like me!). Downzoning will hopefully at least stabalize some areas of the city, especially those near the EMU campus. It's not going to be dramatic in this economy and housing market, but it will pay off in a few years with stable and/or slightly higher property values which will allow people to invest more into their properties. This will equal better maintained homes since people can make and economic case for doing an appropriate restoration of their house.

The taxes are very high in Ypsi, higher than a lot of the historic neighborhoods in Detroit (where taxes are also very high). A recent neighborhood NEZ made Detroit property taxes a lot cheaper. Detroit has a 2% income tax for residents and a 1% income tax for non-residents. It doesn't seem to be that big of a deal for residents or workers. Lowering taxes in Ypsi might not be a great alternative. The decrease/cutting of city services may actually do more harm to the city than the taxes could. Something to be weighed this year.

The rising utility costs are ones where Ypsi should be ahead of the game. Given the cost of utilities these days, hiring a contractor to come in and blow in insulation, do caulking, weather striping, etc. can pay for itself in a year or two. The compact design of a lot of Ypsi homes, combined with weatherization, can even further help things. Ypsi residents should be seeing a reduction in automobile fuel usage due to the walkability of the city. You can walk/bike to a lot of stuff here. If you work in town, you'll hardly ever need to use a car.

Another factor is the cost of housing. Ypsi houses are a fantastic bargain when compared to other areas of SE Michigan, especially the historic districts. You can pick up an outstanding historic house in very good shape for under $200,000. Name another area in SE Michigan where you can do this in a town with so many outstanding amenities. Long-time Ypsi residents may scoff at this statement, but do some house hunting and you'll quickly see that it doesn't get much better than Ypsi.

Well, I could go on and on, but zoning is not the issue. It actually seems to be a benefit. The taxes, at first sight, seem alarming. But when you add in the quality of the house you'll get for the price, the reduced consumption of gas, the quality of the area that you'll live in, etc. it ends up far more to the positive. I think this will be a key to generating interest in new residents in the city: showing that there's more to the cost of living of a place than a mortgage, insurance and taxes. With the cost of gas theses days, folks are now begining to "get" these sorts of things.

Taxes OK ...

BTW, I apologize to Murph for trying to make an arguement on this thread. I do NOT understand planning and zoning. What I DO know is what I hear from business people who say it's just too freaking difficult to get a business up and running in Ypsilanti.

When I ask them what does THAT mean, they can only complain about paperwork, city processes, denials, variances, ZBA, etc. ... leading me to believe they seem to want to do something inappropriate. In which case, as one of them is now doing, they are taking their money to invest in Mt. Clemens. Win a few, lose a few.

Anyway, I love downzoning. And I am not opposed to increased federal, state or local tax increases IF we are getting a benefit. Seems to me that voters who approved a bond issue should be willing to pay the piper. What people are upset about is the lack of transparency (in general in Ypsilanti politics), blatant errors in the deal-making and feasibility (Water Street) and poor deal-making. Win a few, lose a few.

Think Ypsi is hard...

If you think it's hard to open a business in Ypsilanti, just try doing something in Ann Arbor. Talk about a developer's nightmare!

I know many people in Mt. Clemens: residents, developers and government workers. I don't see much difference between the two cities. I'd be interested in getting more details about the person who's gone to da Clem vs. Ypsi. As you say, just because someone wants to open a business doesn't mean it's always a good thing. The city is finally recovering from an era of lax code enforcement, look-the-other-way inspections, etc. If a business owner wants to operate that way, I say find another city.

Ypsi vs Elsewhere

I see quite a bit of difference between Ypsi and Mt Clemens, having lived just outside the latter for a year. EMU is a powerful force driving Ypsi along, and Mt Clemens doesn't have anything similar. Granted, there are some similarities in the amount of land in each place that is non-taxable (there is a really large number of churches within the city limits there), but on the whole, the character of the town is completely different.

Also, Mt Clemens seems much more affected by surrounding sprawl than Ypsi. I'm not saying that Ypsi isn't affected, just that *everything* around Mt Clemens is sprawl. Going west, the next real town center you hit is Royal Oak/Clawson/Troy. North, the sprawl eventually dies out up in the 20+ mile area. South...Clinton Twp and Roseville are pure sprawl. Never really wandered south of that.

To be fair, I have no experience with city workings, so there may be something there that I'm missing.

Ypsi, Mt Clemens, and taxability

Huh. Mount Clemens is a much better comparison to Ypsi than I would have expected in that dimension: 4.2 square miles and 40% non-taxable, population 17k+; we're slightly higher in all three of those. Also from that link, it looks like Mount Clemens, like Ypsi, has been considering an city income tax for a few years now, but, afaict, they haven't done it yet either.